Want to measure organic traffic? Just take the number of Google Webmaster Tools clicks, average out the CTR by position across all of them, then take the broad match volume of all those terms (because that’s the only volume Google will give you), and then take your position and divide it by CTR and volume. And viola! There’s your traffic by keyword.
Sound kinda crazy? It is. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A Growing Darkness
If the above “crazy math” sounds a bit familiar, you aren’t alone. Many digital marketers are using similar methods as an SEO reporting solution now that Google has killed off organic keyword data.
In case you missed it, Google’s blackout on organic data started about two years ago. Back then, it began serving the search results pages over https, aka Secure Search. In doing so, it removed the referrer information from the headers, which, of course, wiped out the keyword-level data SEOs relied upon.
Soon, we started to see the appearance of (Not Provided) in our analytics platforms. And recently, Google quietly switched to 100% Secure Search. This move increased the percentage of (Not Provided) even further, and caused us to lose nearly all keyword-level data from Google. In fact, today some platforms are unable to get any organic data at all, or to measure the volume of organic traffic vs. other channels.
Chaos Has Arrived
Google’s blackout on organic data has left digital marketers scrambling for SEO reporting solutions. Now, established KPIs have to be reevaluated, and every SEO, agency, and tool company has had to develop their own unique approach to calculating and measuring organic traffic. In other words, they’re using their own form of crazy math.
Granted, the SEO industry has always been very creative about defining KPIs and measurements, but now it is happening at the micro-level. Measurements and methodologies are being established on an agency-by-agency — or even person-by-person — basis. For example, I was in a meeting the other day where keyword-specific traffic was calculated based on rankings and search volume.
Unfortunately, all this scrambling for working reporting solutions is creating chaos in the industry. For starters, I’ve found that many brands are panicking as they struggle to understand the implications of the change. Even brands that never ever used or looked at keyword-level data are panicked and asking “what will you do now?”
And of course, the tool vendors are scrambling, too. Many of them relied on their integration with analytics platforms to report and evaluate on keyword-level data. But given the change, they are now using rankings, average CTR, and volume to calculate potential current traffic.
The change has also seriously impacted SEO operations as data and reporting is one of the most time-consuming tasks in search. Agencies that have invested considerable time, resources and money developing reporting tools and platforms will now have to rebuild and establish new KPIs that align with each brand.
A Better Approach
I’ve heard some interesting workaround solutions to the blackout on organic data situation, such as substituting paid data or solely using Webmaster Tools data. And I applaud the creative efforts SEOs are putting forth to meet this new challenge. But I think it’s time for a different approach.
I think the future of SEO reporting needs a more uniform, industry-wide solution. I’d like to see the SEO industry come together to define SEO standards and measurements via SEMPO or another organization.
Having a central SEO authority would be a great step forward in establishing SEO as an official industry. I can see it playing a similar role to 4A’s or the IAB. It can establish standards, define roles and engagements more clearly, and regulate as a centralized voice. And maybe — just maybe — become the link to Google we all have been hoping for.
As we muddle our way through this dark time without organic keyword data, keep the suggestions below in mind:
- Differentiate: When using CTR data, make sure you are aware of the differences in CTR when using branded terms vs. unbranded, as they are dramatically different. If you want to leverage your CTR to get keyword traffic share, I suggest you do your own analysis based on Webmaster Tools data, and group results by intent or funnel position so you can get a more accurate number.
- Realize: Trust me; there are no tricks or secrets to get around Google’s blackout on organic data. This is a limitation of SSL, or more accurately, a feature of SSL. There is no secret button or relationship with Google that could enable you to get access to your organic data. It’s a simple measure of hiding referral data for privacy reasons.
- Leverage Paid: If you are looking for engagement by keyword data, then paid search is your best bet. Paid search still allows you to see the keyword-level page data. How? All the Google paid landing page URLs contain either the gclid or utm parameters, which contain the keyword data. And instead of a result being index.html, it is index.html?utm_term=keyword, etc.
- Appeal to Google: The best thing Google could do is automatically attach a URL string to the landing page that contains that information (just like in paid search). This wouldn’t be hard for them to execute, and it wouldn’t have a negative effect on the user experience or security. But it would allow SEOs to get access again to that valuable data.
- Focus on Content: Google has been making some big adjustments lately. This can be seen in Hummingbird and other changes such as SSL. But keep in mind that search is about intent, and intent engagement is based on the content. Given that, stop looking through the keyword lens. Instead, look through the content and intent lenses. Ask yourself what your users want and whether your content answers their questions.
- Seek Alternate Insights: Considering Google’s propensity to take away data sources, I started looking at other signals and indicators a long time ago. Location data is a great example of an alternate source for insights. We recently starting talking to companies like Placed.com. They use massive panels that enable always-on location data. This can help you see what days and time your audiences shop, research, and engage in various activities. This could help you better understand consumer behavior and interest.
Time For Change
Historically, the SEO industry has shown great creativity in developing KPIs and measurements. I’m hopeful that it will see Google’s blackout on organic data as an opportunity to come together and define new standards and support for the future of SEO reporting. Perhaps we need to start an online petition for an industry-wide solution. Or at the very least, make this a top priority for discussion at upcoming SEO conferences.
How are you adapting to Google’s blackout on organic keyword data? Do you think the industry should come together for a uniform solution?
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.